Slavery in the Tomato Fields

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Domingo hoped to save money to care for his parent. But instead of $200 a week, he received a taste of the indentured servitude helps fuel America's tomato industry.

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This article is excerpted from Barry Estabrook's Tomatoland, released this week by Andrews McMeel Publishing.

The one-story, L-shaped house at 209 South Seventh Street in the southwestern Florida city of Immokalee stands in stark contrast to the couple of dozen trailers that surround it on three sides. A handsome royal palm shades the front lawn. The dwelling is fairly new, well-painted, and in far better repair that the average Immokalee residence. Between 2005 and 2007, Mariano Lucas Domingo lived at that address. New to town, broke, and homeless, he faced the prospects of many recently arrived migrants—sleeping at missions and in encampments in the woods and sustaining himself through once-a-day trips to the local soup kitchen until he amassed enough money to get a room in one of the trailers and buy his own food.

Domingo must have thought it was a great stroke of luck when Cesar Navarrete, a strapping 24-year-old Mexican he met on the streets of Immokalee, not only gave him a job but invited him to crash on his family's property on South Seventh and even offered to front him some pocket cash. For 50 dollars a week, Navarrete's mother, who also lived in the house, would provide meals. Domingo could pay her after his first check—a handsome sum. Navarrete was willing to give Domingo one dollar for every bushel-basket-sized bucket of tomatoes he picked, more than twice what many crew bosses were offering at the time. As for Domingo's lack of documentation, no problem. Navarrete knew someone who could get him false papers. Domingo, a Guatemalan in his thirties, had come to the United States with the dream of making enough money so that he could send some home to care for a sick parent. With little quick calculation, he determined that he'd be clearing 200 dollars a week from Navarrete, leaving him with plenty of spare cash to wire back to Guatemala.

From the outset, it became apparent that Navarrete's promises were too good to be true. Domingo's 20-dollar-a-week rent wasn't for a room with the family in the neat house but for shared space with three other workers in the back of a box truck out in the junk-strewn yard. It had neither running water nor a toilet, so Domingo and his "room" mates had to urinate and defecate in one corner. It turned out that there were about a dozen other men living behind the Navarrete residence, some in trucks like the one Domingo now called home, others in old vans, and others yet in a crude shack. Navarrete's mother's promise to provide food turned out to be two meager meals a day—eggs, beans, tortillas, rice, and rarely some sort of meat—only six days a week. Often the food would run out before everyone got his share.

But Navarrete was generous in one way: He was always eager to extend loans for his crew to buy all the beer, wine, and liquor they wanted, no worries. And pretty soon Domingo, like other members of the crew, found that he had become addicted to the alcohol that flowed so freely at 209 South Seventh. Everything, it seemed, had a price that Navarrete jotted down in a notebook, even activities related to basic hygiene. At the end of hot days of fieldwork, Domingo came home covered in perspiration and pesticides and had to pay five dollars to stand naked in the yard and spray himself off with cold water from a garden hose. His debts soon reached $300.

Still, he was making a dollar a bucket, and by his calculations, after nearly a month of 10-and-a-half-hour shifts, six days a week, he had picked many times 300 buckets. But when Domingo, skinny and less than five and one-half feet tall, brought the subject up, Navarrete said it didn't matter. Domingo was still in debt as far as Navarrete was concerned, and if he tried to leave, he would be caught and soundly beaten. Any crew leader who dared to hire him would get the same treatment. Every week, Navarrete made Domingo hand back his paycheck. After deducting a hefty check-cashing fee and subtracting for rent, food, showers, bottled water, and liquor, he'd hand Domingo arbitrary amounts, 20 dollars one week, 50 dollars the next.

Taking a day off was not an option. If Domingo or any of the others in the crew became ill or too exhausted to go to the fields, they were kicked in the heads, beaten with fists, slashed with knives or broken bottles, and shoved into trucks to be hauled to the worksites. Some were manacled in chains. One day a crew member couldn't take it anymore and ran away from a field. One of the Navarretes got in his truck to chase him down. When the truck returned, Medel said that the man's face was so bloody and swollen that he was unrecognizable. He could not walk. "This is what happens when you try to get away," the boss said.

Image: Coalition of Immokalee Workers

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Barry Estabrook is a former contributing editor at Gourmet magazine. He is the author of the recently released Tomatoland, a book about industrial tomato agriculture. He blogs at politicsoftheplate.com. More

Barry Estabrook was formerly a contributing editor at Gourmet magazine. Stints working on a dairy farm and commercial fishing boat as a young man convinced him that writing about how food was produced was a lot easier than actually producing it. He is the author of the recently released Tomatoland, a book about industrial tomato agriculture. He lives on a 30-acre tract in Vermont, where he gardens and tends a dozen laying hens, and his work also appears at politicsoftheplate.com.
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